He's Gone (But Not Forgotten): Pigpen's Best with the Grateful Dead

Pigpen in 1965
Photo Credit
Paul Ryan/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When it comes to the early years of the Grateful Dead, it cannot be overstated just how important Ronald Charles McKernan - known as Pigpen to his friends and fans - was to the band.

In a perfect world, he would’ve been playing with them all the way up through the band’s conclusion after the death of Jerry Garcia, but instead things went a different way, with Pigpen’s unrelenting alcohol abuse resulting in hospitalization in August 1971, at which point doctors told him that he needed to stop touring, which he did...until he started again in December 1971. It didn’t last: Pigpen’s final show with the Grateful Dead took place on June 17, 1972 at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, after which he’s quoted as having said, “I don’t want you around when I die,” at which point he cut off all ties with his fellow band members. Unfortunately, he got his wish: his landlady was the one who found him dead on March 8, 1973, of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage.

To commemorate Pigpen's lasting legacy, here are seven tracks which spotlight a legend that we lost too soon.

“Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” (The Grateful Dead, 1967): The identity of the writer of this track, which was seemingly first recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson in 1937, has been lost to history (no, seriously), but it was Larry Williams who first recorded a rock ‘n’ roll version of the tune in 1958, after which The Yardbirds made it a British blues standard in 1964. Suffice it to say that the Dead very much made it their own when they recorded it for their debut album.

“Alligator” (Anthem of the Sun, 1968): Truth be told, this song’s greatest claim to fame in Dead lore is that it’s the first song ever co-written by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, with Garcia having sent him the lyrics and Garcia remembered that Hunter had done so just when he needed some to accompany the Dead’s new song, “Alligator.” Talk about your “and the rest is history” scenarios...

“Turn On Your Love Light” (Live/Dead, 1969): Written by Joseph Wade Scott and Don Robey, this song was originally known through the version recorded by Bobby Bland, a Top 40 pop hit that climbed all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard R&B singles chart.  The Dead began to incorporate the tune into their sets starting in 1967, with Pigpen taking lead vocals, and he continued to sing it all the way up through the band’s European tour of 1972.

“Easy Wind” (Workingman’s Dead, 1970): This track was written very specifically by Robert Hunter for Pigpen to sing, and - to borrow the phrasing used by Dead.net - “it fit like a glove.”

“Big Boss Man” (The Grateful Dead, 1971): Originally recorded by Jimmy Reed, this Pigpen-sung cover was one that the Dead retired from their set for nine years after his death, and even after reviving it, they still only played it another 15 times before Garcia’s passing.

READ MORE: Grateful Dead's 'Skull & Roses' Gets Expanded for 50th Anniversary

“Mr. Charlie” (Europe ’72, 1973): Given all the songs Hunter co-wrote with Jerry Garcia, it’s easy to forget that he also co-wrote some with Pigpen as well, including this track. Some say it’s about heroin addiction, others say it’s about racial discord, but we say that we’re leaving it up to you.

“Hard to Handle” (History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One (Bear's Choice), 1973): The kids these days know this as a Black Crowes song if they know it at all, but it was co-written by Otis Redding with Al Bell and Allen Jones and first released as the B-side of “Amen” in ’68, just after Redding’s death. The Dead covered it throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, with Pigpen taking lead vocals, and that’s fair enough: truly, he could be hard to handle.

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